In 2009, Stan Jones, a longtime education advocate and Indiana’s Commissioner for Higher Education, founded Complete College America (CCA) with the goal of helping get “more students into more colleges to earn more degrees.” That vision continues today, even as the organization itself continually evolves to meet the needs of a changing world.

That dedication to continuous improvement has been a hallmark of current President Yolanda Watson Spiva’s tenure at the organization, which has seen financial insecurity, a pandemic, dramatic political shifts, and a heightened national awareness of equity issues all push CCA to develop new strategies and tactics to deliver on its mission. And Spiva didn’t arrive expecting a completely smooth road. Her due diligence about CCA in the early interview stages had shown her that there would be bumps, including funding questions and a lack of strategic clarity following Jones’ 2017 death.

Undeterred, “because I like these kinds of challenges,” and because she believed in the organization’s core mission, Spiva accepted the opportunity to lead CCA in October, 2018, and immediately set to work.

Who are we?

“I came in and I said, ‘There's no strategic plan, fine. We've got to do one.’ So we began the process of developing the strategic plan, doing the environmental scan, interviewing board members, funders, partners, etc.” During that process, “the one consistent piece of feedback that we got was, ‘we have no idea who CCA is today.’” Stan Jones had passed away the prior year, and in his absence, the organization had lost the clarity of purpose he had provided. As a result, funding had waned because, Spiva says, “No one's going to invest in something that's ambiguous.”

To counter that ambiguity, Spiva worked with the board and staff to establish a vision of CCA as an intermediary organization with a balance of “policy, perspective, and practice.” That focus helped them re-center the organization on its goals, continue to provide critical technical assistance, and made it easier to communicate the strategy to members, potential participants, and funders. The decision to become an intermediary quickly proved valuable when CCA applied for and received an “Intermediaries for Scale” grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2019, helping to put the organization on a firmer footing.

At the same time, while the organization’s central Alliance of participating states and organizations was still intact, some members’ interest seemed to be fading. To Spiva, however, the Alliance was CCA’s core asset, so she focused on strengthening it.

“Just like if you have a house and you know that's your biggest asset, you don't let it get dilapidated,” she says. “You want to make sure that it stays strong. So we needed to tend to that asset.” Doing so, she felt would take two efforts: hiring people who would be fully focused on keeping the Alliance strong and at the same time making sure everyone in the organization was clear on its identity.

Read the full article about strategic clarity by Chris Lindquist and Meera Chary at The Bridgespan Group.